Local Methodists advocate for more inclusivity in church

MIDDLEBURY — Many Addison County followers of the United Methodist Church are praying for their denomination’s Judicial Council to reject provisions of a recently adopted “Traditional Plan” for the worldwide organization. The new plan maintains the church’s ban on the ordination and marriage of Methodists whose sexual orientation and/or gender identity is outside the traditional heterosexual male/female model.
The modified Traditional Plan was one of three options the denomination’s Commission on a Way Forward put to a vote by delegates at the UMC General Conference held in St. Louis on Feb. 23-26. The commission floated two other options — a “One Church Plan” and a “Connectional Conference Plan” — in an effort to resolve a longstanding UMC stalemate on the issue of full inclusion of members who fit the categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, or asexual — LGBTQIA.
Addison County and Brandon are home to nine Methodist congregations.
The One Church Plan, according to retired UMC Rev. George Klohck, would have removed prohibitions on same-sex marriages and ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” It would also have allowed each local pastor, church and annual conference to “follow their own way” in such matters, said Klohck, a current Middlebury UMC parishioner.
Meanwhile, the Connectional Conference Plan would have led to a restructuring of the UMC, ultimately leading to three jurisdictions — Progressive, Tradition and Unity.
While a clear majority of UMC constituents from the U.S. were advocating for a lifting of the church’s longstanding LGBTQ ordination and marriage bans, 53 percent of worldwide delegates at the General Conference ultimately voted for an amended version of the Traditional Plan that continues the LGBTQIA interdictions.
Local UMC leaders said they believe passage of the Traditional Plan was a product of the international mix of delegates voting at the conference, with scores hailing from nations that continue to espouse a conservative view of homosexuality.
“We’re disappointed by what the national church has done,” Klohck said during a recent interview.
The UMC’s Judicial Council will meet April 23-26 in Evanston, Ill., to among other things consider a petition challenging the constitutionality of the amended Traditional Plan. Klohck is among a large group of UMC faithful who are hoping the council invalidates provisions of the plan.
But in the meantime, representatives of several UMC conferences and congregations said they’ll continue to welcome their LGBTQIA neighbors into the pews and pulpits, in spite of the fiery debate at the national level.
The Middlebury UMC is listed as one of almost 1,000 “Reconciling” Methodist Church communities in the U.S. and abroad. Members of the Reconciling Ministries Network subscribe to principles and practices leading to “healing and transformation of animosity into honest relationships that respect all God’s children,” according to Network literature.
The New England Conference of the UMC considers itself “open and affirming,” committed to meeting the spiritual needs of people of all walks of life. The conference voted 445-179 on June 18, 2016, to pass an “action of non-conformity,” essentially stating its member churches won’t comply with global UMC rules that “discriminate against LGBTQ persons.”
The Rev. Kim Hornung-Marcy is pastor of North Ferrisburgh UMC. She was candid in her reaction to the recent adoption in St. Louis of the modified Traditional Plan.
“It’s very unfortunate for the majority of American Methodists,” Hornung-Marcy said. “The majority of us were ready for a more open church, and have been for years. So we’re waiting to see what the Judicial Council does at the end of April.
“It was always our hope that we would move forward,” she added.
The Rev. Jill Colley Robinson is Vermont District Superintendent of the New England United Methodist Church. She previously helmed the Middlebury UMC on two separate occasions. As district superintendent, she helps oversee the work of Vermont Methodist churches on behalf of Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the UMC’s Northeastern Jurisdiction.
Colley Robinson agreed the St. Louis vote can be linked to the growing international reach of the UMC.
“Now, more than ever, the United Methodist denomination is a global denomination,” she said. “And the vote that was taken really reflects values from a lot of different cultures. It reflects national laws from other continents that are really different from what the U.S. has on the books. So we have within our work a conflict between the desire to be a global church, and a desire to be an inclusive church.”
Approximately 80 percent of the clergy and laity of the UMC’s New England Conference have “consistently, for years, voted in a progressive, more inclusive direction,” according to Colley Robinson.
The other 20 percent, she said, have held onto more traditional and conservative views.
“I can say that I’m already deeply concerned about the message this decision sends very publicly to members of the LGBTQIA community,” Colley Robinson said. “I would continue to be concerned about that message and those who feel excluded by this decision.”
And Methodist churches committed to inclusion aren’t likely to reverse their current course of civil disobedience and formally endorse a ban on ordination and marriage of LGBTQIA citizens.
“If the Traditional Plan goes into effect, the punishment for those actions will become more defined,” Colley Robinson said. “So that would essentially be an untenable relationship, and things would have to be reimagined, for sure.”
Hornung-Marcy said the Ferrisburgh UMC’s “open and affirming” status won’t change.
“We welcome everybody; I don’t see our church going backwards and our conference going backwards,” she said of the New England Conference. “We ordain all people who are qualified, regardless of their sexual orientation, and we place gay pastors and welcome gay parishioners with no prejudice.
“I’m glad to be in New England and Vermont,” Hornung-Marcy added.
The Rev. Mari Clark, leader of Middlebury UMC, said the vast majority of her congregation is committed to maintaining a reconciling church.
“Like most churches, there’s a variety of emotions and opinions about what’s going on,” she said. “But I would say for the most part, since this is a reconciling congregation — and they’re very proud of that — there is no (discord between members).”
Klohck, in a written statement, compared the UMC’s evolving stance on LGBTQIA acceptance to civil rights battles of the past.
“In modern times in our nation’s shameful past there were ‘good Christian people’ who defended the right of white people to own slaves,” he said. “Later, it was keeping women out of leadership positions in the church. And, these ideas were defended by referring to certain Bible verses, even though there are other verses that count all men and women as equal in the eyes of God.”
Klohck is a member of the progressive movement in the UMC, which he said espouses the fundamental belief that “God loves all people and calls us to love and include everyone in the circle of God’s love.”
While the UMC has been expanding, it has lost some LGBTQIA parishioners along the way.
Hillary Barrows Nipple attended the Ferrisburgh Center United Methodist Church through her childhood and was one of Klohck’s parishioners. She was baptized as an adult and answered the call for ministry in 2009, moving from Vermont to Denver, Colo., to attend the UMC’s Iliff School of Theology in 2010.
Barrows Nipple, married to another woman poised to preach in the Presbyterian Church, grew increasingly frustrated by the national UMC’s position on the inclusion of LGBTQIA folks.
“Stay and make change or leave because the change will never happen was always the discussion,” she said, through an email to the Addison Independent.
She ultimately chose the latter route, finding her spiritual home with the United Church of Christ.
“I do feel heartbroken and devastated that the UMC continues to hold on to antiquated ideas and policies that harm people,” she wrote. “It’s not just this vote; it’s a history of voting against inclusion while having ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors’ — a UMC campaign that is simply hypocritical.”
Still, she supports ongoing efforts to open wider the UMC’s doors.
“I have friends that identify as LGBTQ that are ordained in the UMC currently,” she wrote. “They decided that they could make more change from within the system. I applaud them and continue to keep them in my prayers.”
Colley Robinson is hopeful for a good outcome.
“These are really challenging times,” Colley Robinson said. “Also, out of moments like these, are birthed new possibilities. That’s what I cling to. If we cannot find a way in this current relationship, then we find a new way.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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